Dale Earnhardt Jr. was in contention to win the Daytona 500 all day long. At times he was the car to beat, and at the times when he wasn't, he was still never that far out of it.
Then, in one lap, it all came to a crashing end.
On lap 197, the caution flag waved for an accident involving Regan Smith. At the time, Earnhardt was running in the top five and working very effectively with longtime drafting partner, Tony Stewart.
Then, while running laps behind the pace car, he thought he felt a tire going down and was forced to pit. That resulted in Earnhardt having to line up in the middle of the pack.
That proved to be a costly flat tire. As the field made their first attempt at a green-white checkered finish, Robby Gordon's car got loose while running in the top 10.
Gordon was able to save his car, but as he tried to blend back into line, cars began to stack up behind him. As they tried to avoid the slower Gordon, a lot of bumping and banging began. As a result, Earnhardt and Ryan Newman both sustained heavy damage as a result of a crash.
Earnhardt Jr. wound up finishing the race in 24th place, six laps down. So, where does that leave Earnhardt for the rest of the season? Was the strong Daytona run a sign of things to come, or was it just a flash in the pan?
It is no secret that since moving over to Hendrick Motorsports, Earnhardt Jr. has had his struggles. In his now 109 starts for the organization, he has scored just one win, and only posted 29 top-10 finishes.
Expectations had been for Earnhardt to win multiple races each year and contend for championships. That has certainly not been the case. In his three seasons at HMS, his top points finish is 12th. That is the only time over that span that he has finished in the top 20 in points.
Over this past offseason, changes were made within the Hendrick team in an attempt to bolster the team as a whole. The big change was the three-team crew chief swap. In the crew chief shuffling, Earnhardt ended up with Steve Letarte as his new signal caller.
Though it has only been one week, the new pair seems to be working well together. They were able to put together a pole winning run for the Daytona 500, and although Earnhardt had to start at the rear, due to a practice crash, they quickly made their way to the front and put themselves in contention.
What everyone is eager to find out, though, is whether this is going to last throughout the season, or if it was just a product of Earnhardt and his usual successes at Daytona?
I think that it is a combination of both, if that is possible. By that I mean that we will certainly see some improvement out of Earnhardt, with Letarte sitting atop the pit box, but to expect a complete turnaround over the course of one season may be asking a little too much.
I look for him to continue his strong runs at the tracks you would normally expect him to be a contender at. Tracks like Talladega, Texas, and Martinsville have typically been kind to Earnhardt, and I would expect that to continue.
At the tracks that have typically been a problem for Earnhardt, I would expect to see some improvements. Fontana, Dover, and the road courses have been some of Earnhardt's tougher tracks to find success on, but I think he will start to make some gains at it this season.
While the end result at Daytona wasn't what Earnhardt was looking for, the strong run through 197 laps was. I think that he can take away a lot more positives than negatives from the seasons opening race, and for a driver that has struggled through most of the last three seasons, you can't ask for much more to start the season with.
Don't expect Earnhardt Jr. to make the Chase in 2011, but don't expect a total failure either. While I wouldn't be surprised to see his current 94-race winless streak come to an end this year, I also wouldn't expect much more than a 15th place points finish for NASCAR's most popular driver.